Workers at Chrysler engine plants protest shifts
* Chrysler-affiliated workers give UAW strike authority
* Rotating work schedule major issue in plant pact talks
* Workers in "state of zombieness' -- UAW local official
By Meghana Keshavan and Bernie Woodall
DETROIT, Sept 19 (Reuters) - As Chrysler Group LLC nears a four-year contract with the United Auto Workers union, workers at a Chrysler engine plant have threatened a local strike and say production schedules threaten quality and safety.
Punishing and routine schedule changes that have workers pulling a day shift one week and an evening shift the next have upset many of the more than 400 hourly employees at the Dundee, Michigan, plant owned and run by Chrysler's Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance, or GEMA.
Workers at a second Chrysler engine plant in Trenton, Michigan have also pushed union officials involved in the national contract talks with Chrysler to take up the issue of their work schedules in national contract talks expected to wrap up this week.
Workers at the Dundee and Trenton plants say that Chrysler has the workers on a rotating shift schedule that calls for them to move between days and nights in order to limit costly overtime.
"Workers have their rhythm thrown out of balance," said Tom Zimmerman, chairman of UAW Local 723 which represents the Dundee engine plant workers. "People come to work in a perpetual state of zombieness."
Both plants are key to the restoration of Chrysler.
Workers, divided into three teams at Dundee and Trenton, work four 10-hour shifts per week. The shifts allow Chrysler to get 120 hours of production without paying overtime. In a traditional three-shift schedule, overtime would begin after 100 hours of production.
'JUMPING, JUMPING, JUMPING'
Gabe Solano, president of UAW Local 372, which represents about 460 workers at Chrysler's Trenton engine plant, said the schedules have strained worker health to the breaking point.
"A lot of people in there have diabetes, high blood pressure issues, let alone the life issues of child care," Solano said. "Every week people are jumping, jumping, jumping. We've been doing this rotation for a year now."
Demand for the engines made at the two plants is high, and the shifts help meet that demand, Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said. The contract between GEMA and the UAW calls for rotating shifts, she said.
GEMA operates only the Dundee plant. GEMA did not go into bankruptcy in 2009 as Chrysler did and its UAW-represented workers are able to strike. Chrysler's 23,150 UAW-represented workers are prohibited from striking over national contract issues under the terms of the automaker's 2009 bailout by the Obama administration.
The rotating schedule was set up when the Dundee plant opened in 2005 run by GEMA, then a joint venture between Chrysler's owner at the time, Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE), Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) and Mitsubishi Motors Corp (7211.T).
Hyundai and Mitsubishi have left the joint venture, leaving GEMA as a wholly owned subsidiary of Chrysler Group, which is majority owned by Italy's Fiat SpA (FIA.MI). The current six year contract for the Dundee plant expires on Oct. 14.
Zimmerman said he had negotiated an easing of the rotating shift schedules after Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, but the company reinstated the rotations in late 2010.
Solano said some workers at the Dundee plant had requested transfers out of the plant to try to get some regularity to their work and sleep schedules.
"I'm afraid that we're going to find out that somebody did do something bad on a freeway in the middle of the night driving home, and potentially killing themselves or maiming themselves," he said. "That's the worst case scenario."
He added: "We just want our lives back as far as having normal shifts. And that's the overriding problem."
The UAW reached a new four-year contract with GM last week that will go to GM workers for ratification this week.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is scheduled to return to Detroit on Tuesday to restart negotiations with the union that broke off last week. (Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)
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